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Royal commissions: How the system works in Australia

Justice Peter McClellan prepares to give his opening remarks at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2013
Justice Peter McClellan prepares to give his opening remarks at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in 2013. Photo: Getty
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A law firm has been embroiled in a royal commissions scandal by taking tens of millions of dollars from the taxpayer.

In the Australian system of government, a royal commission is the highest form of inquiry on matters of public importance.

They are “connected with the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth, or any public purpose or any power of the Commonwealth” according to the Royal Commissions Act 1902.

Royal commissions have been used to investigate misconduct in particular sectors such financial services, child protection, home insulation, drug trafficking and many more.

In 2017, federal government established a royal commission into misconduct in Australia's banking and financial services sector.
In 2017, the federal government established a royal commission into misconduct in Australia’s banking and financial services sector. Photo: Getty

How many have there been?

Royal commissions have been held in Australia since 1902 and are set up by the Parliament of Australia.

Since 1902 there have been 135 royal commissions.

The most recent ones are the ‘Royal Commission into the Child Protection and Youth Detention Systems of the Government of the Northern Territory’ and the ‘Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Baking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry’.

The royal commission on child protection was sparked after Four Corners showed the abuse of juveniles in the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in Darwin.

The royal commission on the misconduct in banking and financial services begun with Four Corners and Fairfax journalists who investigated the sales-driven culture within the Commonwealth Bank.

Other banks also got embroiled within the scandal including NAB, Westpac and ANZ.

What can a royal commissions achieve?

The commissioner has the power to hear witnesses under oath, collect evidence and offer protection to people who co-operate.

Ultimately, they hold people accountable for doing the wrong thing by law.

The 1995 Wood Royal Commission saw the investigation into the corruption of the New South Wales police force. It saw seven police officers jailed and prompted change within the industry.

Who is in charge of a royal commission?

They are usually run by a judge or someone of a similar legal standing.

In the most recent royal commission, the Government has appointed former High Court judge Kenneth Hayne.

He has been a Justice of the High Court for more than 17 years.

How are Australian and British ones different?

The major difference is that Australian royal commissions are at state and Commonwealth level whereas UK royal commissions have been appointed under legislation.